Saturday, June 2, 2012

Green Eyed Lady

Emerald Sea

The first thing one notices about the ocean in the Pacific Northwest, as compared to say the Caribbean, is the colour.  The beautiful azure blue of the warm Caribbean belies the fact its waters are basically a desert in comparison to the thick green soup of microscopic plant life in our cold waters that forms the basis of a massive food chain and makes it one of the most productive environments anywhere in the world.  Jacques Cousteau called the ocean here the Emerald Sea, and the vast numbers of fish and animals it supports make for an amazing underwater experience.

Nelson & dry suit photo by Junie Quiroga

However, scuba diving here is not for the faint of heart.  The cold waters require specialized gear, that is both bulky and heavy, to keep warm and dry, and the steep drop-offs and strong currents demand close attention be paid at all times to what you're doing. But the rewards are spectacular and very colourful.

Starfish cluster

The majority of the sea creatures one encounters are invertebrates, which means animals without backbones.  One of the most common invertebrates are sea stars or starfish of various shapes and colours which can be found clinging to rocks or piers where they feast on mussels, barnacles, and clams, all of which are another type of invertebrate belonging to the mollusc family.  If nothing else you quickly realize this is a world of eat or be eaten in the endless life and death struggle going on below the surface.

Anemone cluster
The top 20 - 30 feet of ocean are where the algae and plankton live, and their density makes visibility almost non-existent.  But once you get below them the waters are clear and you can usually see for 30 - 80 feet.  Unfortunately the algae also blocks out most of the sun so things tend to look a little black and white until you switch on your dive light and the colours of the light spectrum suddenly appear in all their glory. Bright green, purple and red anemones, the "flowers of the sea" cover rock walls while fields of giant white and orange plumose colonize other rocky surfaces.

Giant plumose anemone cluster

On land it's hard to get excited about slugs and, whenever we encounter one, we usually do our best to avoid touching them.  Under water it's a completely different story with what are known as sea slugs or nudibranchs.  "Nudis," as they are affectionately called by divers, are spectacular in their colours, shapes and markings.  Looking like slugs or hedgehogs or a combination of anything in between, these frilly orange, yellow, white, purple, and translucent animals have names like sea lemon, orange peel, shaggy mouse, and Spanish dancer, and are a particular delight to catalogue and photograph.

Alabaster nudibranch
Orange peel nudibranch

Giant dentronotid

Another interesting group are the sponges which come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  From orange tennis ball types, and yellow and purple patches forming crusts on the rocks, to massive and intricate cloud and chimney sponges that often have small fish and other creatures living inside them.  Chimney and cloud sponges can be found at depths of up to a few thousand feet but generally they are in the 80 - 100 foot range which is near the maximum depth a recreational diver is permitted to descend.

Cloud sponge
Chimney sponge

One of the principal pleasures of diving is discovering new sites and cataloging the creatures living there.  All it takes is the right combination of nutrient carrying currents and a strategically placed reef, wall, or shipwreck, to make it all come magically alive.  However, like any woman who wants to maintain her allure, there always has to be a little mystery, and so it is with the green eyed lady who keeps it all underneath waiting for an intrepid diver to discover.  More to follow.

Nelson & chimney sponge photo by Joseph Blackburn

1 comment:

  1. Once again a great article. Although scuba diving does not attract me whatsoever I must admit that the Alabaster Nudibranchs and the Giant dentronotids are absolutely beautiful and they are definitely something I look for in deep sea movies...